Evil in the American Justice System
Case 3:
Project Looking Glass
Discussion of Case:
   Child pornography had been all but eradicated in the United States when the Federal Government began sending advertisements and letters  to people like Robert Brase.  The Attorney General's Commission on Pornography reported in
1986 that federal statutes enacted in the 1970s aimed at child pornography distributors had "effectively halted the bulk of the commercial child pornography industry." The report also suggested that 1984 federal statutes criminalizing the receipt of child pornography had largely eliminated the market for noncommercial child pornography. Even at its height, the child pornography problem was largely a myth.  The entire commercial industry is estimated to have generated only one million dollars in the decade ending in 1982, an insignificant share of the pornography market.  One distributor alone was estimated to have accounted for over eighty percent of the market.  A number of experts agree that only 5000 to 7000 minors worldwide have ever appeared in commercial child pornography; most of these children live outside the United States.

   By far the largest advertiser, manufacturer, and distributor of child pornography is the United States Government.  In its zeal to promote itself as the protector of family values, the government has implemented elaborate sting operations  to identify and capture individuals such as Robert Brase, many of whom had never before purchased child pornography.  Some, like Nebraska farmer Keith Jacobson, who successfully brought his case to the Supreme Court, had indicated to the government that they had little interest in child pornography. The government,  however, would not always take "no" for an answer. (1) 

"Project Looking Glass" was the name given to a U.S. Postal Service investigation designed to uncover purchasers of child pornography. The Postal Service apparently obtained names of potential targets for the investigation from raids of distributors of nudity-oriented videotapes. 

One target was a farmer from Shelby, Nebraska named Robert Brase.  Brase's name apparently turned up on a mailing list found during the raid of a California video distributor. There was no evidence that Brase had ever ordered an X-rated video or violated any of the nation's obscenity laws. In 1987, Brase had been married for ten years and was the father of two children. He had no criminal record, and there was no evidence that he had ever sexually abused children. 

The Postal Service, as part of Project Looking Glass, mailed Brase a catalog advertising videos depicting minors engaged in sexual activity. Brase ordered a video tape. Less than one hour after the tape reached Brase's Nebraska farm home, a team of postal inspectors arrived and searched Brase's home. The only child pornography discovered was the tape received from the U.S. Postal Service. 

On October 22, 1987, a grand jury in Omaha indicted Brase for allegedly receiving by mail a videotape showing minors engaged in sexually  explicit conduct. Eleven days later, Robert Brase drove his pickup truck to a seldom-used county road nine miles from Shelby and shot himself. Brase was one of four persons indicted in the government sting operation to commit suicide. [Link to email from Brase's neice concerning her uncle's suicide.]

H. Robert Showers, executive director of the Justice Departments of National Obscenity Enforcement Unit, defended the sting operation: "When normal law enforcement techniques don't work to solve a problem, you have to go to new ones." Showers denied any responsibility for the suicides: "This kind of sting is designed to penetrate into these underground, secretive operations, and we get some well-regarded people in the community -- high-ranking professional people, persons who are considered upstanding citizens.  In those circumstances, something like suicide is to be expected." 

    Project Looking Glass, the sting investigation which resulted in Robert Brase's arrest, was created by Post Office Inspector Ray Mack.  Mack originally envisioned Looking Glass as an intelligence-gathering operation, with the focus to remain on apprehending distributors. There were no plans to sell or distribute child pornography to anyone. 

   Administration officials in Washington decided to elevate Looking Glass to the major sting operation it became.  Calvin Comfort was a postal inspector whose job was to implement Project Looking Glass in the midwest region.  Comfort identified possible targets, wrote advertisements, analyzed responses to  dvertisements, and frequently became a "pen pal" to targets who exhibited reluctance to order the pornographic materials.  Writing under pseudonyms such as "Carl Long," Comfort employed "mirroring techniques" in which "Long" expressed a shared interest in whatever sexual inclinations his targets' letters revealed.  In these letters, Comfort/"Long" emphasized his interest in discreetness.  Typical is the language in one of the three letters sent to a sting target: "I agree with you about privacy.  I am real discrete [sic] but still our conservative society wants to pry into private lives." 

   There is no evidence to suggest that Robert Brase or most of the other targets of Project Looking Glass were child molesters or had ever engaged in sexual activity with minors.  In fact, the vast majority of persons who exhibit an interest in child pornography pose no threat of committing criminal sexual activity with minors. 

      The stigma and shame associated with an interest in child pornography led planners of the sting to "expect" suicides, and, predictably, four happened.  Gary Hester, like Robert Brase, shot himself just prior to arraignment.  Dale Riva committed suicide hours before his indictment was to be announced publicly. Thomas Cleasby left a suicide note stating that he had been "'cursed with a demon for a sexual preference.'" 

   Left alone, Robert Brase would most likely have continued to lead a quiet life on his Nebraska farm with his two children and his wife of ten years.  The world is not a safer place because of his absence.  The death of Brase is as random as it is tragic. Brase's decision to order legally a videotape from a California distributor, the government's decision to conduct the raid on that California distributor, the discovery as a result of the raid of the mailing list that included Brase's name, Brase's decision not to move in the years following his videotape order to a new address that might have prevented the fatal solicitation from reaching its target, and Brase's decision to respond affirmatively to the solicitation: Life should not turn upon such things. 

   What would have happened if the designers and implementers of Project Looking Glass had, before any of this started, visited the Nebraska farmhouse of Robert Brase and talked with him?  Would Robert Showers, director of the Department of Justice's National Obscenity Enforcement Unit, still refer to his suicide as an acceptable risk?  Would "Carl Long" have been willing to write the letters that won Brase's confidence and resulted in his mail orders?  Would they instead have called the whole thing off? 

(1) Jacobson v. United States, 112 S. Ct. 1535, 1537-40 (1992). In response to a government questionnaire, supposedly sent by the "American Hedonist Society," Jacobson indicated that his interest in "[p]re-teen sex-homosexual" material was above average, but not high.  Id. at 1538. Justice White noted that when Jacobson finally placed his order for the pornographic material, he had already been the target of 26 months of repeated mailings and communications from Government agents and fictitious organizations.  Id. at 1536. Justice White concluded  the strong arguable inference is that, by waving the banner of individual rights and disparaging the legitimacy and constitutionality of efforts to restrict the availability of sexually explicit materials, the Government not only excited [petitioner's] interest in material banned by law but also exerted substantial pressure on [petitioner] to obtain and read such material as part of the fight against censorship and the infringement of individual rights. Id. at 1537.